Writers and readers alike are more familiar and comfortable with this tense. Drumroll, please! PAST TENSE is the subject of today's spoonful.
How can you tell if a book is written in the PAST TENSE? First, examine the verbs in the narration.
--Were and was are PAST TENSE forms of the verb "to be."
Here's a simple example sentence which tells, not shows:
John was happy.
--Scored and jumped are two PAST TENSE action verbs.
Abra-Cadabra! Now the sentence shows, not tells.
John scored the winning touchdown and jumped for joy.
Next, examine the tense of the dialogue tags. Remember that dialogue is usually written using PRESENT TENSE, but the tags must reflect the tense of the narration.
--Said (the PAST TENSE of say and says) is the most popular dialogue tag and barely registers to readers. Books for younger readers use said a lot!
--Whispered and yelled are descriptive dialogue tags (and also active verbs), but stick out to readers. Here's my advice: use them sparingly and alternate them with action tied to the character. The sentences below demonstrate three different ways to identify who's talking.
"Don't forget to turn off the light after the movie," Mom said.
"I have a juicy secret," Juanita whispered to her pal Alexis.
Andy scratched his chin. "I don't have a single clue."
(Are you interested in learning more about show, don't tell? Check out my post SHOW AND TELL FOR WRITERS on the Writers' Rumpus blog.)
Writers want to know: when should we use PAST TENSE? Whenever we want to portray action or events that occurred in the past, whether recent or more distant. How does this work across different genres?
If the events you're writing about are documented and/or already occurred, PAST TENSE is appropriate. If events are currently unfolding, use PRESENT TENSE.
For historical fiction:
By definition, history refers to events from the past and historical fiction blends history with fiction! It would be unusual to read about a known historical character or event in anything but the PAST TENSE.
For other types of fiction:
PAST TENSE generally works, even with a mystery laden with tension or a horror story oozing with terror and dread. For a great example of nail-biting dread written in the PAST TENSE, check out the delightfully creeptastic MG novel SHADOW MAGIC by Joshua Kahn.
Science fiction calls for the most PRESENT TENSE consideration, but either tense can be used effectively.
Dialogue helps books feel current, even when narration is written in the PAST TENSE. It also reinforces relationships and action, and it also helps reveal personalities! This is especially true for characters other than the narrator, since you can only reveal what they say, not what they think.
Last but not least, let's not forget flashbacks. As these reflect a character's memories of the past, they must be written in PAST TENSE. To learn how to effectively write flashbacks and determine when they're appropriate, check out my post FLASHBACKS: A TRIP DOWN MEMORY LANE on the Writers' Rumpus blog.
Thanks for reading this spoonful! Next up: FUTURE TENSE.
Laura F. Cooper